Towards the end of this year, we’ll be publishing a first book by Saul Austerlitz – Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video, from the Beatles to the White Stripes. It’s a very smart, very entertaining read, discussing hundreds of videos, from the sublime to Guns N’ Roses to the ridiculous and back again. Here’s a short extract from the book’s introduction:
Music video is about the foregrounding of image. It is an inherent rebuke to the obstinacy of rock snobs who insist on the primacy of the music itself, to the exclusion of marketing, image, and hype. Instead of seeing everything music-related as a sideline to the main attraction of the music, the music video evens out the playing field. Music videos have always been intimately tied up with advertising, serving as the most sophisticated kind of marketing push to sell CD’s, cassettes, 8-tracks, or LPs. They are both advertisements for a product (the music) and ads for themselves. In many ways, music videos are the very products they are shilling for. Music videos may be mere commerce, far more sullied by the touch of capitalism than music’s ethereal purity, but they are no more commercialized than Hollywood films, and far more honest about their essential purpose. Hollywood is also present to sell us on a way of living, whether in the grubby, immediate meaning of pitching Coke over Pepsi, or in the larger sense of American filmmaking being a grandiose ad for an increasingly unreachable lifestyle, but films consistently deflect attention away from their materialist aims with chatter about love, satisfaction, and other such non-material objects. Videos, however, do no such thing; they are open about their desire to sell, and like hucksters shilling their latest wonder drug, each video is an unfulfilled promise of unimaginable pleasures. Music videos are pure consumption- all they ask is to be swallowed gratefully.
Academics like Jody Berlan have often seen music video as a triumph of image over sound, with Berlan arguing in her essay “Sound Image, and Social Space: Music Video and Media Reconstruction” that the video “present[s] a particular mode of cultural cannibalization, in which the soundtrack has been digested lifetimes ago, in fact consumed by the image, which appears to be singing.” This analysis fails to acknowledge the basic economic principles regarding the music video. The music video’s purpose for existence is to advertise and accompany its soundtrack, and without the supposedly secondary songs, nary a music video would ever have been made. Music videos are first, last, and always about commerce: they are engines meant to drive consumers to stores to pick up their favorite band’s new CD, and to keep them from changing the channel.
In fact, image does not triumph over sound nearly enough; just take a look at all the hit videos of the past 20 years that would be utterly unwatchable without the catchy songs they are attached to. If the music video is the triumph of disposable image’s empty calories over the genuine feeling of music, what the form needs is more fat. Much like film, videos are at their best when they embrace their own nature, and become what they already are, rather than attempt to march to the beat of another artform’s drummer. This is not to say that only the shlockiest videos, with the most lowbrow content, are worthwhile; on the contrary, some of video’s classics are attempts to imitate the highbrow intellectuality of the avant-garde (R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young”). Rather, it is that music video is an inherently visual artform, and it is sheer fallacy to think that some types of image (concert footage and its brothers) are “natural” to the video, while other types are foreign interlopers, disrupting music’s inherent drive toward genuine feeling. If all images are equally created, equally artificial, then why not create something of interest? If music video is the collision of two of the 20th century’s greatest cultural breakthroughs, pop music and the recorded image, shouldn’t we hold the latter to the same standards of ingenuity and formal innovation that we hold the former? In that vein, it becomes useful to treat music videos as short films, but only to a point. Music videos have the ability to be every bit the equal of their feature-length siblings, and demand to be measured against the same yardstick; but to lose sight of music videos’ essential function as outgrowths of the music industry is to treat them as found objects, leaching them of their rightful place in the capitalist structure, and their very reason for existence.